American BBQ - More Than Just Grilling

 American BBQ

Key Takeaways:

  • American BBQ is not the same as German grilling
  • There are 6 classic American BBQ styles
  • The sauces make the difference
  • Traditional BBQ was and still is cooked in pits
  • Classic Texas BBQ is more of a local specialty in America

It's BBQ time!

At American Heritage, we have a passion for grilling and BBQ, and we want to take a closer look at the topic, including the various BBQ regions of America and their associated specialties. While steaks, sausages, and the like are also commonly grilled here, they often don't align with the traditional American BBQ experience.

As a fitting read, we recommend: Best BBQ Sauce - Top 10 Grill Sauces for the Summer


American Barbecue – A Smoky Affair

In Germany, grilling primarily involves cooking small pieces of meat like steaks over an open flame and direct heat. While our American friends also enjoy this type of grilling, it's clearly not referred to as BBQ here, but rather as "grilling."

Unlike our grilling, classic American BBQ isn't about quickly searing small cuts of meat over fire and direct heat. Instead, it's about slowly cooking larger cuts (like brisket) using indirect heat and, most importantly, smoking. Hence, the less common smokers are often used for American BBQ, rather than our familiar kettle grills, and it can take half a day or more for the finished meat to land on the plates.

The reason for this lies in tradition. As readers of our BBQ-Popcorn blog might still remember, the origin of today's quintessential American BBQ traces back to the West Indies. The indigenous people there had long used smoking over small, highly smoky fire pits as a way to preserve meat and keep insects and other animals away from the exposed meat during cooking. This method (or the racks used for it, according to some sources) was called "Barbacoa" in the local language.

Through the indigenous people, knowledge of this method eventually reached the European settlers, who adopted it and tailored it to their own tastes. Instead of drying and preserving the meat in smoke, settlers started keeping their meat juicy during cooking with butter and vinegar, serving it directly after cooking rather than storing it for later – thus, American BBQ was born.

However, BBQ is not all the same, as diverse as the Americans are, the regional variations of this smoky tradition are just as varied. Join us on a brief journey through the mecca of American BBQ and discover the smoky pleasure in all its delicious variations.


North Carolina BBQ – A Split Personality

Barbecue has been an integral part of North Carolina's culture for centuries – and by that, we don't just mean culinary culture. BBQ is such a significant topic here that it has sparked political debates on multiple occasions. One of the main reasons for this is that North Carolina BBQ isn't a unified grilling style; it divides (and local grill enthusiasts) into two distinct camps: Lexington Style and Eastern Style.

Of course, this rivalry is mostly lighthearted and serves as fodder for some playful banter, but history shows that this mutual jesting can sometimes turn serious. For instance, in 2006, there was a major public outcry in the Eastern Style camp when an official House Bill (a legislative proposal) indirectly aimed to declare Lexington Style as North Carolina's official BBQ. The dissatisfaction among parts of the population was so great that the entire bill had to be overturned.

Even though Lexington and Eastern Style differ in many respects, there's one common factor: in North Carolina, BBQ revolves around pork. The distinction between the various styles primarily lies in the cuts of pork used and the accompanying sauces.

In Lexington Style, the emphasis is on pork shoulder cooked on the grill or in the smoker. The slow-cooked meat is typically served with a dip-like Red Sauce based on tomato paste, vinegar, and red pepper.

In the Eastern Style, people are less picky, and depending on taste, almost every part of the animal can end up on the grill – according to local lore, they use "everything but the squeal." Eastern North Carolinians primarily serve vinegar- or pepper-based sauces, which, unlike many other BBQ sauces, don't contain tomato paste. This makes the sauces generally thin, and they are often used as a marinade to season the meat before or during grilling.

If you'd like to experience the unique flavor of Eastern Style Sauce, which is unusual in this region, we have just the thing for you:

Also popular in North Carolina as an alternative to other cuts (similar to Memphis) are ribs. Especially the Baby Back Ribs are popular here, closely followed by the well-known Spare Ribs. Baby Back Ribs are shorter and more tender, while Spare Ribs are less tender but longer, thicker, and often have more flavor.

Of course, the classic American coleslaw is a must at a proper BBQ. Here, too, the two camps of North Carolina Barbecue usually disagree. Eastern fans mostly season their slaw exclusively with mayonnaise, while supporters of the Lexington camp use their red barbecue sauce instead of mayonnaise as a dressing. Lexington Style fans also often serve hash browns as an additional side dish with meat and slaw.

Like in many other US states (especially Hawaii and states along the East Coast, the so-called "Barbecue Belt"), North Carolina also has the tradition of Pit BBQ. As readers of our BBQ-Popcorn blog may know, this form of BBQ is based on the tradition of indigenous people in the southeastern United States, who often smoked their meat over dug-out fire pits in the ground (and used the residual heat to pop popcorn). While today this usually involves beef or goat meat, in North Carolina, as mentioned, it's primarily pork.

In fact, smokers (and other enclosed cooking devices like pizza ovens) are ultimately modern advancements of this open-air cooking style.


South Carolina BBQ – German Roots

When it comes to meat, grill enthusiasts in South Carolina share the same enthusiasm as their northern counterparts for delicious pork. Instead of vinegar and ketchup-based sauces, Southern grillers prefer mustard.

This has a tradition behind it. Particularly in South Carolina, over time, many immigrants with German roots settled, bringing their homeland's cuisine into the melting pot of the United States. Pork is also a popular meat in Germany and is often found on the grill, whether as sausages or chops. Mustard is applied before or during grilling as a marinade or crust, and it's also served as a dip. Whether sweet or spicy, it all depends on personal taste.


Memphis BBQ – Ribs & Molasses

In Memphis BBQ, it's all about one cut: ribs.

Whether "dry" or "wet", ribs are the absolute star here, even though many restaurants still serve other meats, like beef or chicken, and of course, other variations of pork, such as shoulder, to satisfy diverse customers.

The meat is slowly cooked in the aforementioned pit-style to preserve its natural tenderness. For "Dry Ribs", the meat pieces are generously rubbed with dry rubs made of salt and various spices before cooking, and the finished meat is served without additional sauces to preserve the aroma.

"Wet Ribs," on the other hand, are generously coated with sauce throughout the entire process – before, during, and after grilling. The Memphis-style barbecue sauce is based not on vinegar, tomato paste, or mustard like Carolina sauces, but on molasses.

Another classic aspect of Memphis BBQ is grilled sandwiches. For this, the grilled meat, especially pulled pork, is served in a bun along with relishes, coleslaw, and the typical Memphis barbecue sauce.


Kansas City BBQ – Greetings from Rufus Teague

Kansas City BBQ is one of the most popular variations in the USA. In general, Kansas City and Memphis barbecue have a lot in common, including the preference for "dry" and "wet" versions of popular dishes and the often molasses-based sauce. However, in Kansas, there's a broader choice of meat types beyond just ribs, and the variety of cuts is unlimited. It's no wonder that Kansas City is also known as a BBQ hub, and prestigious awards like the KC Award acknowledge this tradition.

From our range, the super tasty barbecue sauces and rubs from Rufus Teague originate from that very city. Accordingly, the taste diversity is substantial. From sweet to fiery hot, there's certainly the right seasoning for every grill enthusiast in Rufus Teague's offerings.


Texas BBQ – The Superstar

Despite all this variety, it's undisputed which variation of classic American BBQ might be the most familiar to most readers. Texas Barbecue is an icon of American lifestyle and the wonderfully smoky-spicy culinary culture of the United States. What sets Texas Barbecue apart from the other styles further north in the country is mainly the use of dry rubs instead of sauces. The origin of this tradition lies in the roots of Texas BBQ, which was originally known as Cowboy BBQ. BBQ was a daily affair on the long cattle drives in the South, and dry rubs were a more practical seasoning on these long tracks in the wilderness, compared to sauces and mustard that would quickly spoil after opening without refrigeration.

Similar to North Carolina, Texas also has a small number of clearly defined variations of the local BBQ tradition, although conflicts between practitioners, as seen further north, are less common here.

In Eastern Style Texas BBQ, beef is primarily used. Pork is not unfamiliar, but less popular. The reason for this is likely because cattle ranching was traditionally more widespread in Texas, and the inclusion of pork on the grill is probably a later introduction from other parts of the American South. In an Eastern Style BBQ, the meat is usually chopped rather than sliced, and ( similar to pulled pork) it's served in a bun.

Central Texas Style is perhaps the most natural style of barbecue in the entire USA. Sauces are rare, marinades are unheard of, and even spice rubs are avoided, apart from classic salt and pepper. The meat is indirectly cooked in the pit-style and consumed without additional seasoning or dipping sauces. If dips are served with the meat, they are intentionally kept very subtle and diluted to not overpower the natural flavor of the meat.

West Texas Style, the method that still most closely resembles the traditional BBQ of the cowboys, is perhaps the most familiar variation for us. Unlike in almost all other American BBQ styles, the meat is grilled with direct heat over an open fire instead of being cooked with indirect heat and smoke.

Southern Texas BBQ shares much with the variants from Memphis and Kansas, particularly the thick molasses-based sauce used for marinating the meat before grilling and served as a dip alongside the meat.

A final variation of Texas Barbecue is Barbacoa. This style is primarily found in the southern part of the country and is defined by clear influences from Mexican cuisine. The origins of the unique Barbacoa traditions lie in the ranches of the South. The farmworkers, often immigrants and day laborers from Mexico, were often rewarded with the less desirable cuts of meat, which would otherwise have ended up as scraps, most notably the cow's head. This was traditionally wrapped in leaves and then covered with glowing coals and cooked in an earth pit. The meat, especially the cheeks and tongue, were then popular fillings for tacos and other dishes. Today, Barbacoa is still prepared similarly, but the head is usually cooked in specialized ovens instead of buried in the ground.


Hawaiian Lūʻau

Similar to the Mexican border, the classical Hawaiian variation is equally exotic – although it doesn't end with something as adventurous as a cow's head on the coals. The traditional gatherings are best known for their performances, such as hula dances, and of course, the food. Foremost among these is the world-renowned Kālua puaʻa, known as spanferkel in German-speaking countries. Unlike in our tradition, where the entire pig is traditionally smoked and cooked on a spit using a combination of indirect heat and direct heat over a fire, Hawaiians prepare their version surprisingly similarly to how Texans prepare their Barbacoa. The pig is wrapped in fire-resistant plants (e.g. palm leaves), and together with glowing coals, it's buried in an earth pit and cooked slowly over several hours.

But of course, Hawaiian BBQ has more to offer than just pork. Sweet potatoes, also cooked on glowing coals, are a norm, as is chicken. Other traditional favorites include Poke (cubed raw fish, similar to sushi) and Lauau (a bundle usually filled with fish or pork, wrapped in taro leaves).


Get Grilling!

If all this theoretical grilling excitement has made your mouth water, and you can't wait any longer to try out the typical American grilling styles yourself, then we have a wide range of useful tools and kitchen helpers to ensure your trial run is a success. Starting from gloves and aprons, all the way to the right grilling utensils, you'll find everything you need to shine as a hobby or pro grill master at the grill and at the dining table:


Brand new to our range, we have a special top-class highlight:

If you'd like to take your enthusiasm for hot coals and delicious barbecue wherever your travels take you, without immediately longing to be back at the grill, then we recommend the practical Travel Grill from SLOW N SEAR®. Not only does the grill allow for a perfect grilling experience with its individually adjustable airflow, but with the included patented charcoal basket, it can also be transformed into a smoker in no time while on the go. This way, you can enjoy the best of both worlds: both quick German grilling and gentle American BBQ.

An absolute hidden gem for all grill enthusiasts.